An epic is a long narrative poem in an elevated style that deals with the trials and achievements of a great hero or heroes. The epic celebrates virtues of national, military, religious, political, or historical significance. The word "epic" itself comes from the Greek épos, originally meaning "word" but later "oration" or "song." Like all art, an epic may grow out of a limited context but achieves greatness in relation to its universality. It typically emphasizes heroic action as well as the struggle between the hero's ethos and his human failings or mortality.
Increasingly, scholars distinguish between two types of epic. The first, the primary epic, evolves from the mores, legends, or folk tales of a people and is initially developed in an oral tradition of storytelling. Secondary epics, on the other hand, are literary. They are written from their inception and designed to appear as whole stories.
Note: References throughout are to Robert Fagles' poetic translation, Homer: The Odyssey (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1996). Citations are by book and line; for example, line 47 in Book 3 is represented as (3.47).
The Odyssey as Epic
Composed around 700 BC, The Odyssey is one of the earliest epics still in existence and, in many ways, sets the pattern for the genre, neatly fitting the definition of a primary epic (that is, one that grows out of oral tradition). The hero is long-suffering Odysseus, king of Ithaca and surrounding islands and hero of the Trojan War. He has been gone 20 years from his homeland, his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus. Odysseus embodies many of the virtues of ancient Greek civilization and in some ways defines them. He is not, however, without his flaws, which sometimes get him into trouble.
Epics usually open with a statement of the subject and an invocation to the Muse or Muses — the nine sister goddesses in Greek mythology, the daughters of the king of gods, Zeus, and Mnemosyne ("Memory"). Certain Muses preside over song and poetry, which are joined in epics. Sometimes Muses are assigned to all the liberal arts and sciences. Clio is usually thought of as the Muse of history. Erato takes care of lyrical love poetry. Calliope is the Muse most often associated with epic poetry.
Having invoked the Muse, the epic poet then begins in the middle of the tale; teachers sometimes use a Latin term, in medias res ("in the middle of things"), to identify this technique. Beginning in the middle of the action, the poet then fills in significant prior events through flashbacks or narration.
The Odyssey also employs most of the literary and poetic devices associated with epics: catalogs, digressions, long speeches, journeys or quests, various trials or tests of the hero, similes, metaphors, and divine intervention.
Although few contemporary authors attempt to compose epics, the influence of the genre and of The Odyssey is extensive. Many critics consider James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), which uses Odysseus' Latin name ("Ulysses") for the title and places a very flawed non-hero in Dublin, to be the most important novel of the twentieth century. Other works that students might compare to The Odyssey include Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884), J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer" (in the collection The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, 1964), and Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father (1975).
The Setting of Ithaca
While it includes recollections of earlier times, most of the action in The Odyssey takes place in the ten years following the Trojan War. Historically, was there ever such a war? W. A. Camps (An Introduction to Homer, 1980, "Preliminary") argues impressively that there probably was but that it was much different from Homer's depiction in The Iliad or the recollections of the characters in The Odyssey. Archaeological evidence indicates that the war may have taken place around 1220 bc and that the city Homer calls Troy was destroyed by fire. The Odyssey was likely composed about five hundred years after these events.
In the interim, countless bards had worked over the stories. What we see (or hear) in Homer, is not a depiction of history but a world created out of legend, folk tales, at least one poet's imagination, and a little bit of history. The "Wanderings of Odysseus," as his travel adventures are often called, take place largely in a reality beyond our own; the settings vary widely. Ithaca, on the other hand, is a constant for Odysseus and Homer's audience.
Politically, the system in Ithaca is less formal than a city-state, but it does provide structure based on power. Odysseus is not just a great warrior or excellent seaman, although those are important talents. He also is the best carpenter that Ithaca has known, the best hunter of wild boar, the finest marksman, and the leading expert on animal husbandry. Odysseus can plow the straightest furrow and mow the largest stretch of meadow in a day. In fact, it is his superior skill, his intelligence, and his prowess that enable him to maintain his power even after many years of absence. As long as he or his reputation can maintain control, Odysseus remains king of Ithaca and surrounding islands.
Along with power, of course, comes wealth. Because Ithaca has no coined money, wealth is measured by livestock, household furnishings, servants, slaves, and treasure. Slavery is not only accepted and encouraged in Homer's world, but slaves are viewed as symbols of wealth and power. Piracy, war, and raids on foreign cities are all accepted means of increasing wealth. The first thing that Odysseus does after leaving Troy, for example, is to sack Ismarus, stronghold of the Cicones. In addition to plunder, he captures the women.
Social traditions are strong in this community; ironically, it is the social tradition of hospitality that proves dangerous for Odyssey's wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.
Finally, the people of Ithaca believe strongly in fate and the right of the gods to alter human life at any time. They hope that virtue will be rewarded, but they accept the vicissitudes of fortune. If an Ithacan stubs his toe in the garden, he may say, "Some god sent that rock to alter my path!" Odysseus himself is proof that, if the gods choose, anything might happen, even to a king.
King Odysseus of Ithaca has been gone from home for 20 years. The first 10 he spent fighting heroically and victoriously with the Greeks in the Trojan War; the last 10, he spent trying to get home. From other sources, we know that the goddess Athena arranged for storms to blow the Greeks off course as they attempted to sail home from the war. She was outraged because a Greek warrior had desecrated her temple by attempting to rape Cassandra (daughter of the last king of Troy) in that sacred place. Worse, the Greeks had not punished the man. Although Athena intervenes on Odysseus' behalf repeatedly throughout the epic, her curse originally causes his wanderings.
With Odysseus gone, all that he has — his kingship, his wealth, his home, and his wife and son — is in jeopardy. His wife Penelope finds herself surrounded by unwanted suitors because she is the key to the throne and to Odysseus' wealth. Her new husband would, at the very least, have a distinct advantage in the competition for a new king. Like her son, Telemachus, Penelope lacks the power to eject the suitors who have invaded her home and are bent on forcing her to marry.
In his absence, Odysseus' son, Telemachus, is referred to as the heir apparent and, as such, is constantly in danger, the more so as he becomes a man and is perceived as a threat by his mother's suitors. Telemachus lacks the stature of his father, and although he can summon the Achaeans (Greeks) on the island to full assembly, he cannot accomplish his goals — namely to rid his home of the unwanted suitors who have abused a custom of hospitality. Not only does Telemachus lack power to maintain control, but he also has no formal system of laws or courts to support him. Telemachus himself acknowledges that he may, at best, be ruler only of his own house.
If Telemachus were to assume the crown without sufficient resources to defend it, which he currently lacks, he risk being deposed and, most likely, killed. If Penelope stalls much longer in selecting a suitor, Ithaca could find itself in civil war, and she and her son may well be among its first victims. If she chooses a husband, her son is still in danger unless he is willing to abdicate his claim to the throne. As repugnant as marriage seems, it may be necessary for Ithaca's and (possibly) her son's survival.